Press Freedom Violations Cast Dark Shadow over Egyptian Elections
Censorship and Threats Reported as Vote Continues
By: By Scott Griffen, IPI
VIENNA, 14 Dec. 2011 - Little more than two weeks after the start of the first free elections to take place in Egypt in decades, threats to press freedom, including the censoring of a major new English-language newspaper, have mounted.
The second edition of the Egypt Independent - planned for 1 December - never made it to press after objections were raised to an article criticising the Egyptian military, the newspaper reported on its website. The original article, "Is Tantawi Reading the Field Correctly?" written by the American historian Robert Springborg, questioned the ability of Army Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi to stem discontent within the ranks and speculated on a possible internal coup.
According to the UK's Independent newspaper, the planned issue was shelved after an intervention by Magdi el-Galad, editor of Al-Masry Al-Youm, the Arabic-language sister publication of the Egypt Independent. The Independent noted that Galad, who recently declined an offer to become information minister in Egypt's new government, had developed a close relationship with the military over the years.
In response to growing domestic and international concern over the perceived censorship, Galad published a defence, entitled "Put that in your pipe and smoke it," in which he accused Springborg and Alistair Beach, the author of The Independent story, of failing to understand Egyptian culture. Galad insisted that his decision to stop the article was motivated by a concern for national security, charging in particular Springborg, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, with attempting to incite a coup.
Troublingly, Galad wrote further, "I could not care less for the broken record about freedom of speech, employed by the West to achieve its nefarious ends against us, when it suppresses those freedoms to protect its interests and national security," and said that he felt "superior" to the Western press. The title of Mr. Galad's piece derives from his conclusion, in which he asserts that "those in the U.S. and its servant Britain who disagreed"* with his actions could "put that in their pipe and smoke it."
Despite Galad's apparent control over the Egypt Independent, the latter published an online editorial denouncing Galad's decision (though it did not mention him by name) and accusing Al-Masry Al-Youm of falling victim to self-censorship. The editorial praised Springborg as an "eminent scholar of Egyptian military affairs" and indicated that it would refrain from putting out another issue until it had achieved independence from Al-Masry Al-Youm through the acquisition of a separate printing license.
Additionally, the Egyptian Gazette and other news sources reported earlier this week that several Egyptian journalists, including prominent television presenter Amr al-Leithi, had received death threats. Al-Leithi, who recently presented a series on radicalism in Egypt, told the media that he had filed a complaint with the country's chief prosecutor. It was also noted that journalists had called for a demonstration to be held in front of Cairo's press syndicate, though this does not yet appear to have taken place.
Media within Egypt, including the news website Bikya Masr, further reported on Tuesday that two female Egyptian journalists working for the Al-Fagr newspaper were sentenced to one month in prison each after a sheik, Youssef al-Badry, sued them for having "invaded his privacy". The two reporters, Sally Hasan and Fatima al-Zahraa Mohamed, had published an article on a "spiritual session" they had received at the sheik's residence for which they paid 350 Egyptian pounds (approx. 45 euros).
According to Bikya Masr, al-Badry is "known to file lawsuits against thinkers and writers in Egypt for what they write, even if it did not involve him personally." Per the judgment, Ms. Hasan and Ms. Mohamed are also banned from writing for three years. The website further noted that al-Fagr's editor, Adel Hammouda, was fined 5,000 pounds (approx. 640 euros).
The International Press Institute (IPI) is increasingly concerned about the state of press freedom in Egypt as historic elections continue there. IPI reported in November on a rash of attacks against journalist in the lead-up to the beginning of the election season.
IPI Press Freedom Manager Anthony Mills said: "Censorship and threatening behavior toward the media have no place in a democratic society. The current elections in Egypt offer an opportunity for the Egyptian authorities to demonstrate a new respect for the rule of law and the rights of the press after decades of authoritarian rule. Unfortunately, recent actions by the military leadership indicate a troubling unwillingness to brook criticism or to stand up for the safety of journalists. We urge the military to reverse this trend and work to ensure that post-election Egypt will be a free and open society, in accordance with the ideals of this spring's protesters."
* Correction: Quotation marks were re-instated.